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A whiff of African heritage in capital's artscape

Saturday August 13, 2011 02:57:41 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

A figurative sculpture in serpentine stone from the historic Tengenenge sculpture farm in northern Zimbabwe on display in the capital.

(Photo: IANS)

New Delhi: The historic stone art of Tengenenge, a region located in northern Zimbabwe, may be barely 40 years old but it is breaching high-end ethnic boutique art and home accessories bastions across the world.

A collection of 50 abstract Zimbabwean sculptures crafted in serpentine, high-density hard smooth black stone, spring stone and opal is in India after more than two decades to be sold as collectibles, drawing room, corporate and institutional art.

The collection, "The Tengenenge Story" brought to India by the Incentive Foundation opened at the Regalia Gallery in Gurgaon this week.

The display-cum-sale is an attempt by Indophile Mon Van Der Biest, a Belgian art promoter and the Incentive Foundation to promote African ethnic art in India and familiarise Indian collectors and art lovers with the diversity of sculptural art around the world in the context of the histories that have shaped their evolution, said Anup Nair, the managing director of Incentive Foundation.

The modern Shona Sculptural Art Movement of the ethnic lot of Zimbabwe (known as Shona people) began to carve a new identity for itself in the 1950s when the first director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (The Rhodes Art Gallery), Frank McEwen, encouraged African artists to craft in soapstone.

"After the 1960s' tobacco crash (failure of tobacco crop and sale), a Dutch tobacco farmer in Zimbabwe, Tom Blomefield, in 1966 advised his farm hands at Tengenenge, 150 km north of Harare near Guruve, to switch to sculpting with serpentine, an ancient stone found three feet below the surface soil. Blomefield said his farmers had to survive and ensure that the farm could tide the tobacco melt," Nair told IANS.

The rocks for sculpting were sourced from the great Zimbabwean dyke of serpentine and the harder springstone.

The new livelihood whip prompted a miracle as farmers, tobacco graders and tractor drivers like Bernard Matemera, Sylvester Mubayi and Henry Munyaradzi metamorphosed into prize-winning Shona sculptures at the Tengenenge Sculpture Comminity.

Bernard Matemara, a former tractor driver at Blomefield's farm, was honoured by the New Delhi-based Lalit Kala Akademi at its triennale in 1986.

Blomefield, who was well-connected in the West, pushed the art beyond the frontiers of Zimbabwe to Europe. He exhibited sculptures from his farm at galleries in the Netherlands where it caught the imagination of the European and American art fraternities.

The art and its exponents have since travelled around the world.

The "Tengenenge Story" is directly linked to the new Shona Sculpture movement on Blomsfield's historic farm.

All the sculptures have been assembled from the Tengenenge Sculpture Community by Indophile Mon Van Der Viest in the course of his visits to Zimbabwe, thanks to the friendship he struck with Blomefield.

The Belgian, three of whose children are adopted Indians, later decided to part with his Tengenenge collection to the New Delhi-Incentive Foundation to raise money for children's welfare in a village near Gurgaon, Nair said.

The art on display is mostly of women and elephants; two motifs that connect to India. The style is abstract and the lines are fluid; almost mobile in their unfettered detailed flow.

On a giant screen inside the gallery, an 80-year-old Blomefield speaks of his experiment with Shona sculpture on his farm in a new documentary on the art of Tengenenge.

"I had a dream that one day I'd be an artist," Blomefield said.

The art of Tengenenge - which in African means the "beginning of the beginning" - is an offshoot of Shona art, the traditional visual culture of Zimbabwe.

The Shona culture revolves round an eclectic cache of solid art carved from single blocks of rare stones like serpentine, soapstone and springstone found in abundance in the area.

Dating back to stone age, first in the form of rock paintings and then pottery, the Shona art found scattered around the ancient settlement sites in the country show a high degree of skilled craftsmanship and aesthetics.

The motifs are distinctly African drawn from everyday life, the rituals of the ethnic agrarain people who inhabited the land and their totemic religion.

However, over the years the Zimbabwean art has changed in sensibility with colonisation and the influence of Western aesthetics to become modern; without breaking away from its traditional ethos.

Women, mother, man-woman, children and elephants recur in a variety of chiselled shapes, compositions and schools of thoughts ranging from realism to abstraction.

The collectibles are priced between Rs.5,000 to Rs.26,000.

The showcase will close Sep 15.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at




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